Does USB Cable Quality Matter?

Leo Laporte takes a call from Alan in West LA who wants to know if the quality of USB charging cables makes any difference for smartphones.


Attackers actively exploit Windows bug that uses USB sticks to infect PCs

Attackers are actively exploiting a vulnerability in all supported versions of Windows that allows them to execute malicious code when targets mount a booby-trapped USB on their computers, Microsoft warned Tuesday in a regularly scheduled bulletin that patches the flaw.

In Tuesday’s bulletin, Microsoft officials wrote:

An elevation of privilege vulnerability exists when the Mount Manager component improperly processes symbolic links. An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could write a malicious binary to disk and execute it.

To exploit the vulnerability, an attacker would have insert a malicious USB device into a target system. The security update addresses this vulnerability by removing the vulnerable code from the component.

Microsoft received information about this vulnerability through coordinated vulnerability disclosure. When this security bulletin was issued, Microsoft has reason to believe that this vulnerability has been used in targeted attacks against customers.

The vulnerability is reminiscent of a critical flaw exploited around 2008 by an NSA-tied hacking group dubbed Equation Group and later by the creators of the Stuxnet computer worm that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program. The vulnerability—which resided in functions that process so-called .LNK files Windows uses to display icons when a USB stick is plugged in—allowed the attackers to unleash a powerful computer worm that spread from computer to computer each time they interacted with a malicious drive.

When Microsoft patched the .LNK vulnerability in 2010 with MS10-046, company officials classified the vulnerability as “critical,” the company’s highest severity rating. The classification seemed appropriate, considering the success of the .LNK exploits in infecting large numbers of air-gapped computers. For reasons that aren’t clear, Tuesday’s vulnerability has been rated “important,” Microsoft’s second-highest severity rating. Update: As Virus Bulletin researcher Martijn Grooten pointed out, the .LNK vulnerability was remotely exploitable, allowing it to infect millions of people. By contrast, the bug patched Tuesday appears to require a USB stick, a requirement that would greatly limit the scale of attacks. That’s the likely reason for the lower severity rating.

In addition to fixing the bug, Microsoft is also releasing software that allows patched computers to log attempts to exploit the bug. That will make it easier for people to know if they were targeted by attackers.

Separately, a word of caution: the installation of Windows language packs will require Tuesday’s patch to be reinstalled. Accordingly, before running the update, users should make sure they install any language packs they expect to need in the future.

The fix for the USB vulnerability was one of 14 patch bulletins Microsoft published on Tuesday as part of its monthly update cycle. Microsoft typically identifies by name the person or group reporting the vulnerabilities that get fixed. In this case, however, the company didn’t elaborate beyond saying notification came “through coordinated vulnerability disclosure.”

via Attackers actively exploit Windows bug that uses USB sticks to infect PCs | Ars Technica.

A brief history of USB, what it replaced, and what has failed to replace it

Like all technology, USB has evolved over time. Despite being a “Universal” Serial Bus, in its 18-or-so years on the market it has spawned multiple versions with different connection speeds and many, many types of cables.

The USB Implementers Forum, the group of companies that oversees the standard, is fully cognizant of this problem, which it wants to solve with a new type of cable dubbed Type-C. This plug is designed to replace USB Type-A and Type-B ports of all sizes on phones, tablets, computers, and other peripherals. Type-C will support the new, faster USB 3.1 spec with room to grow beyond that as bandwidth increases.

It’s possible that in a few years, USB Type-C will have become the norm, totally replacing the tangled nest of different cables that we all have balled up in our desk drawers. For now, it’s just another excuse to pass around that dog-eared XKCD comic about the proliferation of standards. While we wait to see whether Type-C will save us from cable hell or just contribute to it, let’s take a quick look at where USB has been over the years, what competing standards it has fought against, and what technologies it will continue to grapple with in the future.

What it replaced

If you’ve only been using computers for the last decade or so, it can be easy to take USB for granted. But for all of its ever-shifting specs and connectors, it’s still a huge improvement over what came before.

If you were using a computer anytime before the dawn of USB in the Pentium and Pentium II eras, connecting pretty much anything to your computer required any one of a large variety of ports. Connecting a mouse? Maybe you need a PS/2 connector or a serial port. A keyboard? PS/2 again, maybe the Apple Desktop Bus, or a DIN connector. Printers and scanners generally used big old parallel ports, and you could also use them for external storage if you didn’t want to use SCSI. Connecting gamepads or joysticks to your computer often required a game port, which by the 90s was commonly found on dedicated sound cards (these were the days before audio chips became commonplace on desktop and laptop motherboards).

You can see the problem. Some of these ports required their own dedicated expansion cards, they all took up a bunch of space, and they were often fussy when it came time to configure or troubleshoot them. By the late 90s, computers were starting to come with a couple of USB ports, usually a couple of them on the back of the system—these were usually USB 1.1 ports, capable of speeds up to 12Mbps (or 1.5Mbps for peripherals like keyboards and mice). Accessory makers didn’t all make the switch to USB right away, but keyboards, mice, printers, and other accessories began to include USB ports and connectors as an option, then as the primary interface.

Full Story: A brief history of USB, what it replaced, and what has failed to replace it | Ars Technica.

Researchers uncover fundamental USB security flaw, no fix in sight

A pair of security researchers from SR Labs have uncovered a fundamental flaw in the way USB devices work. It affects every single USB device out there and worse yet, there’s no line of defense short of prohibiting USB stick sharing or filling your USB ports with superglue.

The flaw that security researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell plan to present next week at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas runs deeper than simply loading a USB drive with malware. Instead, it’s built into the core of how the technology works.

After spending several months reverse engineering the firmware that handles the basic communications functions of USB devices, they were able to reprogram the firmware to hide malicious code. This firmware is present on every USB device within the controller chip – the component that facilitates communication between the USB device and the computer it’s plugged in to.

By loading malicious code on the firmware, it’s essentially hidden from sight. Anti-virus scanners can’t pick it up and formatting won’t help, either.

To prove their point, the team created a piece of malware called BadUSB that can be used to completely take over a PC, alter files invisibly and even redirect a user’s Internet traffic.

And just to be clear, we aren’t talking about just USB flash drives but any device that connects via USB: keyboards, mice, smartphones, tablets, you name it. Worst yet, it’s nearly impossible to determine if a device has been tampered with. The researchers say there isn’t even any trusted USB firmware to compare code against.

Matt Blaze, a computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, speculates the attack may already be common practice for the NSA. He points to a spying device called Cottonmouth that was mentioned in one of Edward Snowden’s many leaks. Exact details of the device weren’t mentioned but the leak claimed the tool hid in a USB peripheral plug.

via Researchers uncover fundamental USB security flaw, no fix in sight – TechSpot.

Critical Windows USB exploit allows flash drives to grant root access, patch issued

Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday yielded an interesting security fix for a glaring vulnerability in how the Windows kernel handles USB device enumeration. The critical vulnerability allowed potential hackers with physical access to a Windows PC to run arbitrary code with system user privileges — even while Windows was locked and users logged off.

Would-be hackers could exploit the security hole by merely inserting a specially-formatted USB flash drive with a custom device descriptor. During device detection, the Windows kernel would parse this information and execute malicious code found on such a USB drive, irrespective of autorun or AutoPlay settings. The code would run with elevated system privileges.

Microsoft’s researchers admit this attack may indicate other, similar “avenues of exploitation” — but perhaps where physical access to the host system is not required.

The vulnerability (MS13-027) is found across all versions of Windows ranging from Windows 8 to as far back as Windows XP SP2, including Windows Server variants.

Because the hack requires no user interaction and exploits how Windows kernel-mode drivers handles memory-resident objects, the security snafu could be exploited even without a logged on user or while a Windows system is locked.

Having physical access to a computer can make rooting a standard Windows box relatively straightforward; however, exploits which require only brief casual access can be dangerous, particularly in office and educational settings — a user’s privacy and security can be compromised in a matter of seconds.

Microsoft addressed this security issue in yesterday’s round of updates. Windows Update is the simplest way to install the patch, but it can also be downloaded and install manually.

via Critical Windows USB exploit allows flash drives to grant root access, patch issued – TechSpot.